The Godfather by Mario Puzo

I’m a bore on the topic of books vs. films, as I’ve been told many times, and I’d have to agree. Don’t get me started on whether the film version is better than the book, because I will wax poetic for a good hour or two about the merits of the book and how the book is ALWAYS better than the film. However, I must come clean and shamefacedly admit that I have never in my life read Mario Puzo’s masterpiece The Godfather. Until now, that is.

20190908_135416

I’ve seen the film, of course. Like 30 times. Possibly more. I own the trilogy, for God’s sake. I can quote the movie nearly line-by-line (another reason not to watch movies with me because I will irritate the shit out of you by doing that) and I will gladly debate the merits of that much-maligned film The Godfather III, because I personally think it has many hidden gems within it. Just try to ignore Sofia Coppola’s performance and give her a break…..she was young and there are worse actresses in the world.

20190909_012821

Unless you live under a rock, you know the storyline. The Corleone family patriarch, Vito, runs a crime syndicate in 1950s New York. He has three sons, Santino (Sonny), Frederico (Fredo), and Michael, and a daughter, Constanza (Connie.) All are very different, and Sonny is expected to take over the family business, but when he is executed Mafia-style and when Vito Corleone has an attempt made on his life, Michael takes over, becomes the Don and is far more cold and ruthless than his father ever could be.

20190909_121119

I was surprised at how removed the narration of the book was, though. It’s told from the third-person, but even from that remove, it is a very cold and clinically written book of a passionate family. The dichotomy was odd, though it worked extremely well because when you read the scenes of violence, murder, etc., the emotional remove makes them much more powerful. I was also surprised at how Michael’s Sicilian wife, Apolonia, was portrayed. In the film, she has very much a personality, flirtatious and passionate and quite funny, actually. In the book, she really isn’t given much character at all, beyond being this gorgeous, sexual creature that Michael falls passionately in love with and must possess, until she is, of course, killed in the car explosion meant for him.’

20190909_120431.jpg

In terms of food, I had initially planned to recreate the scene where Clemenza teaches Michael to make  homemade ragú sauce when Michael is in hiding before killing Sollozzo and McCluskey, frying the garlic, etc. It’s a classic food scene and I love nothing more than making tomato sauces because it’s so relaxing. But I then I read the scene where a pregnant Connie cooks a meal of veal with peppers for her dickwad husband Carlo, and when he tells her to fuck off, she loses her temper, smashes the dishes on the table, and he proceeds to beat the living hell out of her.

giphy

“I’m not hungry yet,” he said, still reading the racing form. “It’s on the table,” Connie said stubbornly. “Stick it up your ass,” Carlo said. He drank off the rest of the whiskey in the water glass, tilted the bottle to fill it again. He paid no more attention to her. Connie went into the kitchen, picked up the plates filled with food and smashed them……..the loud crashes brought Carlo in from the bedroom. He looked at the greasy veal and peppers splattered all over the kitchen walls and his finicky neatness was outraged. “You filthy guinea spoiled brat……clean that up right now or I’ll kick the shit out of you.” And he does, using a belt and his fists.

Pretty awful, both in the book and the film clip above, but it did start me thinking about veal. I had never made veal saltimbocca and this seemed like an excellent way to honor the Corleone family. This method comes from the legendary Anna del Conte’s book Gastronomy of Italy, which in my opinion, is like the Bible of contemporary Italian cooking. Her method does involve making the veal into little rolls, or involtini, so my friend Luca Marchiori says these should be called vitello involtino.

20190909_120933

INGREDIENTS
10 thin veal veal cutlets
10 slices prosciutto
10 fresh sage leaves
1/2 cup flour, for dusting the veal
Salt and pepper to taste
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup white wine

METHOD
Lay out the veal cutlets on a flat surface.

20190909_121050

Place a strip of prosciutto and one sage leave atop each piece of meat.

20190909_120834

Roll up each veal cutlet and secure  with a toothpick to hold its shape.

20190909_120606

Mix salt and pepper into the flour, and dredge each veal roll in the seasoned flour.

20190909_013013

In a heavy skillet, heat the olive oil and melt the butter in it, and when hot and bubbly, add in five of the veal rolls, browning on each side. I estimate it was roughly 5 minute per side. Don’t crowd the frying pan because they won’t brown and your lovely $25.00 veal cutlets will have gone to waste. I’m too cheap to want that.

20190909_012727

Let cool and fry the other five rolls.

20190908_211325

Remove the last rolls from the still-hot pan, and pour in the white wine, whisking and letting it bubble until it thickens into a lovely, syrupy reduction sauce, about 10 minutes. Pour over the veal rolls. The smell is amazing!

20190909_012559

Et voila! Veal saltimbocca, or as my friend Luca Marchiori suggested, vitelli involtini since they are rolled. Whatever. They are absolutely, mouth-wateringly delicious!

20190909_012757

Serve with some lovely, buttery polenta and roasted red bell peppers….hence, veal and peppers! Just don’t throw the food across the room a la Connie Corleone.

20190909_012529

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

I remember discovering Angela Carter in my mid-20s and falling instantly in love with her lush, prosaic, luxuriant and very bawdy language. Her writing can instantly evoke palaces filled with plush draperies, languid golden bathrooms, fairylike woods filled with magical creatures…….and also be as basic and raunchy as humorously describing a cat licking his bottom, the stench of rotting food, or the very earthy pleasures of lovemaking.

2018-02-25 09.56.04_resized

Her masterwork, in my opinion, is her collection of short stories, The Bloody Chamber and Other Tales, from which the short story I am blogging today got its title. The book itself is a collection of eight novellas based on traditional fairy tales. You’ll read fantastical revised versions of Little Red Riding Hood, Puss in Boots, Sleeping Beauty, two very different and equally gorgeous versions of Beauty and the Beast, and my own personal favorite story, The Bloody Chamber, which takes the tale of Bluebeard and twists it completely onto its head.

2018-02-25 09.54.09_resized

I was always madly fascinated by the horrific tale of Bluebeard and the wives he’d murdered and then whose heads he kept hanging in his secret chamber, gruesome trophies of his own hunt. It’s no wonder that this particular story has never been turned into a bowdlerized Disney version – there is no way in hell you can make this story nice. You could throw in dancing candlesticks, talking animals, and singing snowmen all you want, and it remains a horrific tale of murder and ultimate redemption, when the fourth young wife takes the key – that infamous key that her husband has specifically told her NOT to use – opens the door to the bloody chamber, and discovers what happened to her predecessors.

Barbe Bleue

In Carter’s version, the young wife is ultimately rescued by her mother, so you can read it as a highly feminist archetypal tale. I think why this particular tale of Carter’s has always beguiled me so much is because the young wife is as fascinated by her older, murderous husband as she is repelled by him, which demonstrates the multifaceted nature of women. She is as happy with her husband’s wealth as she is miserable in her solitude. She orders a fabulous feast for herself when her husband leaves her to go on a business trip, and before her fateful exploration of his castle and ultimate discovery of the bodies of his three previous wives – all killed by him and preserved in a locked room.

2018-02-25 09.51.09_resized

Then I found I had to tell her what I would like to have prepared for me; my imagination, still that of a schoolgirl, ran riot. A fowl in cream – or should I anticipate Christmas with a varnished turkey? No; I have decided. Avocado and shrimp, lots of it, followed by no entree at all. But surprise me for dessert with every ice-cream in the ice box.

2018-02-25 09.58.56_resized

Shrimp and avocado are, in my humble opinion, a marriage made in heaven. There are so many wonderful ways to combine them, but I decided to make some appetizer bites combining shrimp, avocado, cucumber, and some homemade Creole seasoning. As I had invited friends over for Game Night, these made the perfect starter.

2018-02-25 09.58.27_resized.jpg

INGREDIENTS
30 raw shrimp, shelled and deveined
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
1 tablespoon red chili powder
1 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning
1 teaspoon chipotle sea salt
1 tablespoon butter
2 ripe avocadoes
1 tablespoon lime juice
Sea salt
2 large cucumbers, peeled and cut into round slices

METHOD
Mix the olive oil, lemon juice, and spices together in a bowl, and add the shrimp. Stir around to ensure they are completely covered, then refrigerate for an hour.

2018-02-25 09.50.38_resized

Arrange the cucumber rounds on a platter.

2018-02-25 09.47.52_resized

Mash the two avocadoes together, and season with salt and lime juice to taste.

2018-02-25 09.48.38_resized

Spread the avocado mix onto each cucumber round.

2018-02-25 09.52.14_resized

Heat the butter in a cast-iron skillet on medium-high, and gently cook the shrimp for 2-3 minutes per side, until they are opaque and have some nice blackened marks on them.

2018-02-25 09.53.35_resized

This is what you want.

2018-02-25 09.54.37_resized

Let the shrimp cool for a few minutes, then place one shrimp on each avocado-covered cucumber round.

2018-02-25 09.55.17_resized

That’s it! Simple, elegant, and quite beautiful, with the contrast of the blackened shrimp floating on the cool green bed of avocado. And the spiciness of the shrimp is nicely offset both by the smooth avocado and crisp cucumber. So good that surely you can keep Bluebeard from killing you next.

Possession by A.S. Byatt

For some reason, I’ve been feeling rather depressed lately. It comes on occasionally, and I try to overcome it with the comforts of reading, cooking, venturing out to new places, or writing. In poring over my library to find something that hopefully will help shake me out of my low spirits, I came across Possession, which I’d not read in a couple of years. A trip to the rainy British Isles seemed just the ticket.

DSC_0403

I’d forgotten what a great literary mystery this book is. It’s philosophical, analytical, and romantic all at once. Roland, the main character, is also feeling trapped in his career as a scholar and trying to find a place for himself both professionally and personally. He discovers two handwritten letters from a famous Victorian poet, Randolph Henry Ash, written to a mysterious woman, and Roland becomes obsessed – possessed, you could say – in finding out who she is. His researches lead him to Professor Maud Bailey, another mysterious female. Together, they embark on a quest to learn not just who the “Dark Lady” in Ash’s life was, but how and why they met, and the outcome of their meeting. The book combines literary analysis with a sense of wonder in discovering something fresh in a world where, it seems, nothing is new. The pleasures of research, of reading, of taking one’s time, of discovery, are concepts to be savored and enjoyed.

DSC_0099

Upon Roland and Maud’s first meeting, she invites him to spend the night on her sofa, as his lack of money makes it impossible for him to find a hotel. She cooks him dinner and they begin their literary journey together. Their quest takes them to France, as well, where they begin to discover not just who the mystery woman is, but their feelings for each other, as well. I love both passages, so I decided to make two recipes – added solace for my rather low spirits.

Shrimp in colander

“Maud Bailey gave him potted shrimps, omelette and green salad, some Bleu de Bresse and a bowl of sharp apples. They talked about Tales for Innocents, which Maud said, were mostly rather frightening tales derived from Grimm and Tieck, with an emphasis on animals and insubordination.”

“During his stay he had become addicted to a pale, chilled, slightly sweet pudding called Iles Flottantes, which consisted of a white island of foam floating in a creamy yellow pool of vanilla custard, haunted by the ghost, no more, of sweetness.”

DSC_0364

Potted shrimps were something I’d never heard of, so I did some research and found that they are essentially shrimp cooked in clarified butter, and served generally as an appetizer. Making clarified butter was a new culinary challenge for me, but I was in need of distraction, so I gave it a go. Similarly, Iles Flottantes – floating islands or snowballs – were a new one for me, but I discovered that it is similar to the New Mexican dessert known as natillas, a vanilla custard. I decided that both recipes were in need of interpretation by yours truly, so here we go.

DSC_0409

These are the methods that worked for me.

For the potted shrimp, based on the Serious Bites recipe, but with a few tweaks of my own:

INGREDIENTS
1 pound of unsalted butter

DSC_0084
Muslin cloth or cheesecloth
1 pound of raw, deveined, shelled shrimp
1 shallot, finely diced
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely diced
1/2 teaspoon of ground nutmeg
Sea salt
1 teaspoon anchovy paste or two finely chopped anchovies
1 tablespoon lemon juice, or about half the juice of a large lemon

Melt the butter under low heat. When completely melted, empty into a large, clear container. Allow to slightly cool, and as it does, use a spoon to scrape off the solids that form at the top. The milk solids will have sunk to the bottom of the container by then. Strain through muslin or cheesecloth, or just pour very carefully into another container, so that you get just the clear, golden melted fat solids. The end result should be this nice liquid that is ideal for cooking, as it can be used at very high temperatures without burning. Who knew?

DSC_0111

In a small skillet, heat some of the clarified butter, the shallot and garlic, sea salt, and the nutmeg, and saute until translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the anchovy paste and the lemon juice and cook for another minute.

DSC_0179

DSC_0244

Add the raw shrimp to the pan with the other goodies, and cook briefly until the shrimp are pink. Divide this mixture into ramekins and cover with the clarified butter. The idea is to have the butter completely submerge the shrimp. Refrigerate for at least an hour. Remove, and spread on toast or crackers. Delish, very decadent, and quintessentially British.

Pic 1

For the Iles Flottantes, which, rather serendipitously, were featured last night on a late-night rerun of that great old British cooking show, Two Fat Ladies. Clarissa Dickson Wright, the blonde half of that hilarious duo, made these using a chocolate custard, so I decided to try her method, adding a couple of flavoring twists of my own:

INGREDIENTS
6 eggs, separated
1/2 pint of whole milkDSC_0102
2 tablespoons granulated sugar, separated
4 ounces of dark, bittersweet chocolate, minimum 60% cocoa solids
1 teaspoon of cinnamon
1 tablespoon of vanilla extract

In a double boiler, slowly melt the chocolate, stirring occasionally. Add the cinnamon and vanilla and stir.

Add 1 tablespoon of sugar to the egg whites, and beat until very stiff, like little meringues.

DSC_0329

In another saucepan, heat the milk until simmering, but don’t let it boil, or it will curdle. Put a spoonful of the beaten egg white onto the hot milk. The idea is to poach the egg white so that it cooks slightly and holds it shape. It’s one of those things that is much easier in concept than in execution. Anyway, do this two egg white cakes at a time. Remove them to a paper towel and drain while you make the chocolate-cinnamon-vanilla custard.

Creme Anglaise

Beat the egg yolks and the remaining tablespoon of sugar. Add the slightly cooled melted chocolate and the slightly cooled milk. The reason for allowing the chocolate and milk to cool is because if you don’t, you’ll end up with chocolate scrambled eggs. I mean, how gross is that? Delia Smith and Fanny Cradock would kill me! Anyway, stir this mixture together in the same double boiler under low heat, until it thickens to the texture of thin cream. Like this.

DSC_0380.JPG

Allow the chocolate custard to cool for about 5 minutes, then spoon into fancy glasses, top with the poached egg white, drizzle some of the remaining custard on top, and refrigerate for an hour, to set.

Chocolate floating island

Eat, then lie back and think of England. If you can still breathe, of course.

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

To say this book is my ultimate favorite is an understatement. I first read it in my 20s and was enthralled at the mixture of philosophy, medieval history, and the detective story at the heart of The Name of the Rose. Much like the labyrinth library navigated by Brother William of Baskerville and Adso of Melk, the two main characters, the tale twists and turns upon itself and wends off into unexpected directions, dark corners and the occasional literary “red herring.” It takes a truly talented writer to make a 500+ novel about medieval monks, and didactic history of the medieval Catholic Church, into something compulsively readable.

IMG_20160306_151659

The author, Umberto Eco, died on Feb. 19, 2016, and left a huge void in the academic and literary worlds. It felt like a personal loss as well, hearing of his passing and realizing his witty prose and semiotic thought process are now gone from this world. If a writer can make a reader question her worldview and analyze things around her that she normally wouldn’t even think of, Eco has done that in my life with this book. A book about books, about libraries, about labyrinths and puzzles, about the history of the Catholic Church, and about the qualities of human nature that do not change over time. Love, desire, betrayal, greed, and that attitude of imposing your beliefs onto the world weave like fine golden strands throughout the pages of this book.

20160306_180447_resized

This gem of a novel was the inspiration for my (still unfinished) graduate thesis – a semiotic analysis of The Name of The Rose itself. It was, I thought, a clever turning of Eco’s philosophy back onto him, but it turns out I bit off way more than I could chew. Never take on the master unless you know you can beat him. I could never hope to come close to Eco, but I wrote 90% of the thesis as a love letter to his philosophy. It remains incomplete, but occasionally I add to it in my head. I’m no academic, but perhaps one day I will go back and write the damn thesis in honor of Eco and my love for this amazing book. Or maybe I’ll just cook in Eco’s honor, instead.

20160306_180054_resized

One of the more colorful characters is the monk Salvatore, a porcine-featured man who speaks a polyglot of tongues and languages, a linguistic mish-mash of Spanish, Latin, French, Italian and who knows what else. The result is a bizarrely entertaining vernacular of his own. The passage where he offers to make fried cheese for Adso and Brother William exemplifies this.

I put an end to his talk and told him that this evening my master wanted to read certain books in his cell and wished to eat up there. “I will do,” he said. “I will do cheese in batter.” “How is that made?” “Facilis. You take the cheese before it is too antiquum, without too much salis, and cut into cubes or sicut you like. And postea you put a bit of butierro or lardo to rechauffer over the embers. And in it you put two pieces of cheese, and when it becomes tenero, zucharum et cinnamon supra positurum du bis. And immediately take to table because it must be ate caldo caldo.”

20160306_180257_resized

If you have any understanding of basic English and the romance languages of Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, Catalan or Romanian, you can completely understand what he is saying. I’ve always found the language of Salvatore a charming example of Eco’s facility with languages and symbolism.

Now, I don’t know about you, but eating melted cheese with sugar and cinnamon doesn’t exactly make my taste buds go “yippee!” So I poked around my kitchen and came up with this version, which is based on the luscious-sounding mozzarella in carozza recipe detailed by Luca Marchiori on his heavenly blog Chestnuts and Truffles.I did, obviously, omit the bread, but the idea is the same – cheese dusted in flour and fried – cheese in batter! As Luca is Italian himself, and this recipe is in honor of his fellow countryman, I thought it quite fitting to tweak it and cook it here. Grazie, Luca!

20160306_173205-1_resized

This is the method that worked for me.

Ingredients

1 egg, room temperature
2 tablespoonfuls of flour
1 tablespoon Italian breadcrumbs
1-2 teaspoons ground thyme
1-2 teaspoons garlic powder
Mozzarella cheese
Camembert cheese
Parmesan cheese
Olive oil for frying

20160306_172025_resized

Method

Crack your egg into a ramekin. Add your flour and breadcrumbs into another ramekin. Add the thyme and garlic powder into another large bowl, then start chopping up your cheeses into small pieces.

20160306_172138_resized.jpg

Mix the cheeses and herbs together with your hands, and roll into small balls. Yes, I said balls.

20160306_172507_resized

Return your happy little cheese balls to the bowl, and refrigerate for about 30-45 minutes.

20160306_172702_resized

Add olive oil to a large, shallow pan and heat until the oil is shimmering.

20160306_172034_resized

Dip the cheese balls into the beaten egg, then into the flour and breadcrumb mixture, then add it to the hot oil in the pan. Yes, I’m a sloppy cook and I don’t care.

20160306_180510_resized

Add 3 or 4 flour-dusted cheese balls and fry until brown on one side, then flip and fry on the other side until browned. Don’t cook more than 4 minutes on either side, because the cheese will start melting out of the flour and egg.

20160306_180803_resized

Dab off the excess olive oil and nosh away. Nom nom nom!

20160306_180314_resized

“Stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemus.”